Living The Quran
From Issue: 1022 [Read full issue]
Al-Ahzab (The Confederates) - Chapter 33: Verse 32
"Oh women of the Prophet, you are not like other women. If you fear God, be not too complaisant (soft, subdued) in speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved by greed (desire), but speak you with a speech that is just."
To reinforce the idea of the exclusion and silencing of women, some jurists cite this verse. They contend that this verse emphasizes that a woman's voice is a awrah. By its own terms, the verse addresses the Prophet's wives and explicitly states that they are not like other women. The reverse implication is that what might be lawful to other women might not be lawful to the wives of the Prophet. Furthermore, by its own terms, the verse distinguishes between forms of speech — the khudu speech (soft, seductive, kind, enticing, submissive) and normal speech. At most, one can argue that it advises against submissive speech, and commends principled and just speech. If anything, the verse advises the Prophet's wives to not be submissive or meek, but to speak in a firm and principled fashion.
Obviously, there is a historical context to this verse. Historical reports indicate that vagabonds who converted to Islam in order to achieve some degree of financial security were reluctant to pressure the Prophet with demands. Instead, they approached his wives with numerous demands. While the Prophet's wives were kind and gentle, reportedly, the demands exceeded the bounds of reasonableness, and reached a point in which some of the flimsy converts were taking advantage of their kindness. The verse was revealed to instruct the Prophet's wives to speak out of principle, and not simple emotion. Therefore, the verse addresses the Prophet's wives by emphasizing that they have a special social position, unlike other Muslim women. [Al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, Al-Tabari, Al-Razi]
In short, there is nothing in this verse that decrees that the voice of women is awrah. Furthermore, it is indeed an unreasonable proposition to suggest that a women's pronouncement of tasbih or the saying of "amin" in prayer is the type of khudu that the Quran is talking about.
"Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women" - Khaled Abou El Fadl
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